In "The Last Gunfight," author Jeff Guinn unearths the true version of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and explains why this 1881 gunbattle in Tombstone, Ariz., has assumed the status of an American myth.
‘The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral — And How It Changed the American West’
by Jeff Guinn
Simon & Schuster, 374 pp., $27
For author Jeff Guinn, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral represents a convergence of social, political and economic forces in the American West — and his thorough research provides details to support that interpretation. But his argument isn’t strong enough to prevent readers from using those same details to see the shootout in other ways, perhaps as just another macho misunderstanding elevated to lethal violence by testosterone, alcohol and easy access to firearms.
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Guinn joins other recent researchers in making clear that this iconic gunfight, the subject of numerous books and films, was not “an ultimate showdown between clear-cut forces of good and evil,” an interpretation that arose out of the 20th-century media’s myth-making.
Guinn’s last chapter in “The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral — And How it Changed the American West” gives a clear chronology of how the good-guy-bad-guy view came to be.
But the flesh-and-blood men who blazed away in a vacant lot off Fremont Street (not in the nearby O.K. Corral) in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on Oct. 26, 1881, are not so easily divided by white hats and black.
All of them were driven by social, political and economic forces, as well as by alcohol and pride. The Clantons and McLaurys had stopped in the O.K. Corral long enough to boast about what they would do if the Earp brothers came after them.
Once police chief Virgil Earp, his deputized brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and Doc Holliday started down Fremont Street, the Cantons’ and McLaurys’ concern for how turning back would appear to the watching townspeople prevented them from doing so.
The gunfight — eight men facing off on a dusty frontier street, 30 shots in 30 seconds, three men dead and three wounded — came to represent the classic American West brand of violence. But most frontier disagreements ended furtively — ambushes, shots in the dark, unsolved and forgotten. This one was different, dramatic and the result of many motives, events and societal forces that Guinn carefully details.
The Clantons and McLaurys represented small ranchers, happy to be free of government interference to steal cattle from Mexico and sell beef to those supporting Tombstone’s mining interests. Despite occasional run-ins with the law themselves, the Earps, especially ambitious Wyatt, were intent upon being elected to law-enforcement jobs that would confer status upon them. The two factions’ paths crossed often, violently and, in the end, fatally.
Whether you agree with Guinn’s interpretation or not, the book stands as a full airing of all that led up to the most famous gunfight in the history of the American West.
John B. Saul is a retired Seattle Times editor.